“As man of the world,” said Blake, stretching himself to his full height of five foot three, and speaking with the wisdom of nineteen years, “I say that it can’t be done. In any other company, certainly; at headquarters, possibly; but not in D Company. D Company has a reputation.”
“All I say,” said Rogers, “is that, if you can’t run any mess in the trenches on four francs a day, you’re a rotten mess president.”
Blake turned dramatically to his company commander.
“Did you hear that, Billy?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Billy. “I was just going to say it myself.”
“Then, in that case, I have the honour to resign the mess presidency.”
“Nothing doing, old boy. You’re detailed.”
“You can’t be detailed to be a president. Presidents are elected by popular acclamation. They resign–they resign–“
“To avoid being shot.”
“Well, anyhow, they resign. I shall send my resignation in to the Army Council to-night. It will appear in ‘The Gazette’ in due course. ‘2nd Lieut. Blake resigns his mess presidency owing to the enormous price of sardines per thousand and the amount of lime juice consumed by casual visitors.’ I’ll tell you what–I’ll run the mess on four francs, if you’ll bar guests.”
“Rot, it’s nothing to do with guests. We never have any.”
“Never have any!” said Blake indignantly. “Then I shall keep a visitors’ book just to show you.”
So that was how the D Company Visitors’ Book was inaugurated. I had the honour of opening it. I happened to be mending a telephone line in this particular trench one thirsty day, and there was the dug-out, and–well, there was I. I dropped in.
“Hallo,” said Blake, “have a drink.”
I had a lime juice. Then I had another. And then, very reluctantly, I got up to go. Army Form Book 136 was handed to me.
“The visitors’ book,” said Blake. “You can just write your name in it, or you can be funny, whichever you like.”
“What do they usually do?” I asked.
“Well, you’re the first, so you’ll set the tone. For God’s sake don’t be too funny.”
It was an alarming responsibility. However, as it happened, I had something which I wanted to say.
“Thursday, 12.45 p.m.,” I wrote. “Pleasantly entertained as usual by D Company. Refused a pressing invitation to stay to lunch, although it was a hot day and I had a long walk back to my own mess.”
I handed the book back to Blake. He read it; and with one foot on the bottom step of the dugout I waited anxiously.
“Oh, I say, do stay to lunch,” he said.
I gave a start of surprise.
“Oh, thanks very much,” I said, and I took my foot off the step. “It would be rather–I think, perhaps–well, thanks very much.”
Once begun, the book filled up rapidly. Subalterns from other companies used to call round for the purpose of being funny; I suppose that unconsciously I had been too humorous–anyway, the tone had been set. The bombing officer, I remember, vowed that Mrs. Blake’s hospitality was so charming that he would bring his wife and family next time. A gunner officer broke into verse–a painful business. One way and another it was not long before the last page was reached.
“We must get the General for the last page,” said Blake.
“Don’t be an ass,” said Rogers.
“Whatever’s the matter? Don’t you think he’d do it?”
“You wouldn’t have the cheek to ask him.”
“Good lord, you don’t stop being a human being, because you command a brigade. Why on earth shouldn’t I ask him?”
I happened to turn up just then. The telephone line from headquarters to D Company always seemed to want attention, whatever part of the line we were in.
“Hallo,” said Blake, “have a drink.”
“Well, I am rather thirsty,” I said, and I took out a pencil. “Pass the visitors’ book and let’s get it over.”
“No, you don’t,” said Blake, snatching it away from me, “that’s for the General.”
“This way, sir,” said a voice above, and down came Billy, followed by the Brigadier. We jumped up.
“You’ll have a drink, sir?” said Billy.
“Oh, thanks very much.”
“What will you have, sir?” asked Blake, looking round wildly. “Lime juice or–or lime juice?”
“I’ll have lime juice, thank you,” said the General after consideration.
Blake produced the book nervously.
“I wonder if you’d mind,” he began.
The General looked inquiring, and started feeling for his glasses. He was just feeling in his fifth pocket when Billy came to the rescue.
“It’s only some nonsense of Blake’s, sir,” he said. “He keeps a visitors’ book.”
“Ah, well,” said the General, getting up, “another day, perhaps.”
When we were alone again Blake turned on Billy.
“You are a silly ass,” he said. “If you hadn’t interfered, he’d have done it. Well, I shall fill it in myself now.”
He took a pencil and wrote:
“Monday–Hospitably received by ‘D’ Company and much enjoyed the mess president’s amusing conversation. The company commander and a subaltern named Rogers struck me as rather lacking in intelligence. R. Blake, D.S.O., Brig.-Gen.”
* * * * *
I had been out of it for a long time, and when quite accidentally I met an officer of the battalion in London I was nearly a year behind the news.
“And Blake,” I said, after he’d told me some of it, “that nice child in ‘D’ Company; what happened to him?”
“Didn’t you hear? He had rather a funny experience. He went into that last show as senior subaltern of ‘D.’ Billy was knocked out pretty early and Blake took on. After that we had a lot of casualties, and finally we were cut off from headquarters altogether and had to carry on on our own. Billy was the senior company commander and took charge of the battalion. I don’t quite know how it happened after that. We all got rather mixed up, I suppose. Anyway, at one time Blake was actually commanding the brigade. He was splendid; simply all over the place. He got the D.S.O. He’s rather bucked with himself. Young Blake as a Brigadier–funny, isn’t it?”
“Not so very,” I said.
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